Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Movie Thoughts

Often the very best genre has to offer is rife with text that is either telling of its time, or universal in its themes. They emphasize greater concerns in broad swings and strokes in the guise of popcorn diversion. This is even better when the whole is wrapped in an effective character drama that carefully just enough depth and enthusiasm to support the main idea's foundations. Now imagine my jaw hitting my lap as I caught the latest Marvel production, only to be stricken by just how big a leap they have taken. It's officially now hard to call where making a new Marvel movie constitutes "business as usual". When your second film centered on one of the most spiritually milquetoast of its roster hits on all cylinders, it becomes a truly baffling case of "where to now?"The megabudget film debut of Community's Russo Brothers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is much more than your now expected superhero checklist with A-list stars. It is a sincerely thrilling & effective action piece, with the best understanding of what superheroes can be in the movies.

As Marvel Studios has taken some bold steps in the wake of The Avengers(2012), their return to the life of long asleep super-soldier Steve Rogers is rife with revelation. The beloved boy scout has been spending his days post New York taking orders and defending his ideals through SHIELD. Ever the busybody, and rarely with time to settle down, his catching up with the modern world has begun to hit some murky waters. After a mission to liberate an overtaken SHIELD vessel at sea, his own faith in what he does is placed into doubt. Even after taking it up with his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in his best showcase with this character-period,), who lets him in on their organization's biggest defense plan to date, his concern over the morality of his own actions weighs heavily. This upcoming Project Insight seems bent on "stopping threats before they happen", to the point of almost unnerving levels. And it isn't long before matters spiral out of control when it becomes clear that even Fury cannot seem to trust his superiors.

Something awful has overtaken the security monolith over time. And the future of it, and (naturally) the world are in for some grave danger unless Rogers, occasional partner, Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) , and newfound friend, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) can devise a means of stopping it.

Further complicating matters, remnants of Rogers' past are about to return in force - and is a heartbreaking, terrifying one.

Loosely based on years of Captain America stories (most notably the works of Ed Brubaker), TWS is perhaps the best possible synthesis of classic superhero drama with the carefully executed topical and character fireworks required. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, the stakes are made all the more potent by way of never forgetting Steve Rogers' life as a dutiful soldier out of his element. That his ideals and still-risible innocence has yet to be tarnished by the greyness of the current day. That he is representative of a world where anyone can strive to be good, even as the fog threatens. Before things slip into a desperate run and search for answers, we gather how much he has learned about our current time, and even finds kinship in unusual places. Most representative of his philosophical spectrum comes from his connections with Sam, also a war veteran who helps at the VA hospital with traumatized soldiers, his growing trust with the often evasive Natasha, and even his brushes with Fury. The backbone of the entire film relies heavily on these bonds/rifts as the world seems on the brink of outright paranoia, and circular logic. Trust, and the role of soliders lies at the heart of TWS, and it often hits these notes with the rare precision that most films of this scale fail to.

And due to such a careful script, we are also hosted to some of the best performances yet for a Marvel piece. There is no exaggeration in saying that the film's moral weight lies in how Steve Rogers is portrayed, and to say that Chris Evans has embodied him is an understatement. Everything from his quiet moments, to his comedic, to action beats, he is unerring. It's a truly spirited performance. Scarlett's return as Rogers' co-worker/friend, Romanoff is easily her best work to date. With several quiet moments shared here, it's pretty clear that this is a character who has long lived many lives, and is faced with becoming her truest self while the world seems ready to disintegrate. It's well-nuanced, and empowering character work for her. Also, Jackson's Fury is both frustrating and human. A perfect moral foil for Evans. Also worth noting is Robert Redford, who's take on Alexander Pierce, head of SHIELD, is gravity granting, Mackie's Wilson (AKA- Falcon), who makes for an impressive new ally, friend, and thematic bridge, not to mention Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp, who deliver solid work. So much seed planting here, in a film that seems hellbent on shaking up the game board. It's enough to make all players tweak their amplitude to impressive levels.

More than merely shoehorning the political text in ways that most major films have done recently, there is meat here that smacks of better grilling. With the NSA/surveillance themes right up front, there was a sense of worry that came over me during the initial viewing that were alleviated as the character work filled in the gaps. Crossing philosophies of varying eras is a smart move in a story about soldiers, and their role in world affairs. And even as the horrific ultimate plan is revealed, it is done so with just enough reminders that this is a moving comic book. It knows when to pull in deep, then release. This is the film, Star Trek Into Darkness so badly wanted to be. 

Not merely a stylistic shift from the adventure fantasy period piece that was The First Avenger(2012), The Winter Soldier, is a bold, hard action drama with a greater emphasis on story than has yet been attempted. Now that the first film works as prologue, this one feels ready to dish out the kind of haze and conflict that only makes the Steve Rogers character so effective. It truly feels as if the minds at Marvel knew what kind of mileage they could get out of him: Placed him in our current milieu, and watch him struggle, learn, and change. So when we see him taking on adversaries with the kind of hand-to-hand action that would make the cast of The Raid take notice, it feels reasoned and natural. When the action comes, it is well-choreographed & intense, always supportive of the story, with zero fat, and the stakes are emotionally clear.

The Russos want it to be very clear; The Cap is in for the fight of his life.

It may not sound like a big deal, but to consider where these films have come since the days of Iron Man, this is a bold shift. While the tone here is much darker, and more character driven than usual, this is well balanced with the kind of levity one expects from the comic book world. Perhaps more than most of its kind, The Winter Soldier knows how to dance between tones and moods, making for one brisk and thought-provoking ride. Not merely a great superhero film, it is a solid, important reminder of what the blockbuster can be.

(Recently heard word that Marvel has films planned for as far out as 2028 - Big talk. Count me out soon, TWS is a very hard act to follow.)

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